How to deal with a severing of sibling ties?
February 8, 2010 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for resources to help me deal with the growing realization that I was abused, physically and emotionally, by my older brother for the better part of 20 years.

Through work with my therapist for the last six months, I've realized that a lot of my psychological troubles are the result of treatment I received from my brother. He would hit, ridicule, sabotage, and betray me on a daily basis.

Throughout, my parents would either ignore the abuse or punish us both as a result. When I would protest or defend myself, in their minds our squabbles had turned into a fight, and we would both be disciplined for the same offense. When I would voice my concerns about spending additional time with my brother, I would be told that I was an ungrateful and underserving child.

This has led to all sorts of inappropriate behaviors and feelings that I have carried with me to adulthood, including lack of assertiveness, inappropriate and "fizzled" displays of anger, irritability, violent and vengeful fantasies, insomnia, stress reactions. Compounding the issue is a recent funeral where after several days of exposure to my brother I had reached my limit and refused to share a car ride back to the airport with him. I was then accused of "feeling sorry for myself", which is a constant refrain in my family. My parents express their disappointment with me for distancing myself from him on a regular basis.

He is no longer abusive in an outright sense, but the 10 or 11 times I have seen him since we both moved from the family home have not gone well. His penchant to ridicule and pious lectures remains.

I am frankly considering severing ties with him completely, and making it known to my family that their inaction and insufficient response to the situation is threatening their relationship with me as well. It may be that I am in the thrall of new emotions uncovered by therapy, but I find myself reliving the trauma and accompanying urges to punish him myself on a daily basis in a way this is interfering with my occupational security.

My therapist is very good, but I need to make better use of my time with him by appealing to a wider community that might have experience with such circumstances. He is very good at allowing me to guide my own revelations and reactions while fulfilling an important reflective role, but lately I have found myself stuck in a loop of anger and confusion when this most important subject comes up.

My question therefore is twofold.

1) What resources are available to someone who has been through an experience like this (therapy aside, what books/groups/websites would make for good reading)?
2) Does anyone have anecdotal evidence that I could consider when evaluating how harmful or beneficial it might be to explicitly cut my ties with him?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This may, or may not, help, but I know somebody who did the "journey" from this book, and that was very helpful.
posted by DreamerFi at 9:39 AM on February 8, 2010

I think that it's really healthy that you're dealing with your feelings about this and honestly acknowledging what happened to you. I'm so sorry that your family is unwilling or unable to deal with what's happening in a similarly healthy manner.

I have a troubled family history of a different sort, and I've cut ties with members of my family in the past. If I could give you one piece of advice, it's this: don't think of it as "cutting your brother off." That has a very permanent ring to it, and (at least for me, but apparently for most people) brings up a lot of feelings of guilt about causing a rift in the family. Instead, think of it as "distancing yourself from your brother for as long as you need in order to be able to deal with him in a way that's healthy for you." That gives you as much time as you need to figure out what you're thinking and feeling, to deal with the residual effects of your childhood, and to learn the skills you need to deal with difficult people. It may be that after doing all of that work, you decide that it's not worth it to you to contact your brother. But it may also be that you eventually want to contact your brother again and feel mentally prepared to handle his behavior. You won't know what you're going to want until you've had some space to process what's going on.

Given your family's past reactions, I think it's pretty likely that you're going to get a lot of grief from your parents for distancing yourself from your brother. It'll be hard, but I think that part of this process will be learning that what you need is more important than what makes your parents comfortable. You're going to spend a lot of time saying things lie, "I understand that you're upset that I won't be coming home for Thanksgiving with Brother, but I've chosen not to spend time with him right now, and I'd appreciate it if you could try to respect my decision." You may want to explain in detail once more why you're upset with him, but after that, don't explain yourself, don't argue, and don't give in to manipulation. Standing up to your parents will be, I think, almost as important for you as spending time away from your brother will be.

I realize that this is turning into a short novel, so I'll end by saying this: whatever you decide, you're making the best decision you can for yourself at the time. Other people (parents, friends, therapist, AskMe, etc.) may have a different opinion about what you should do, but their opinions aren't as important as yours. And if you make a choice and change your mind, that's okay too. You've spent a lot of your life with people telling you that what you think and experience and want isn't important or isn't real. Whatever you decide to do, it's really powerful that it's you making the decisions now.
posted by decathecting at 9:40 AM on February 8, 2010 [10 favorites]

I quit talking to my sister after a bout of "she's just doing it to get attention, if you ignore her she'll stop" around my ending up in the hospital 14 years ago.

I can't say I've missed the constant stream of bullshit. I am also content to let her be the sibling who lives closer to my mother and probably ends up inheriting the house, since having to be both my mother's favorite (and thusly smothered and manipulated most of the time) and the target of abuse about same from my sister ("I don't see why she loves you BETTER") has left me largely sick of the game.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:42 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is just anecdotal and I may have a hard time keeping this brief.

I had a dysfunctional family (mostly my father). My sister, unfortunately, went through a lot worse stuff than you describe with both my brother and my father.

My sister cut all of us off for a year or two. At the time, I was sad, but I really believed that she had to do that – if only to eventually realize who were the people that hurt her, and cut them out of her lives (since then, we are close again – but she has not talked to my brother or father for 10 years or so).

I cut off my father probably 20 or so years ago.

Here are a few observations of both myself and my sister. These are my own conclusions, so feel free to use applies or reject what doesn’t:
• If your brother still exhibits that behavior, not having him in your life may help (This is horrible, but not having my father in my life is healthier than it was before).
• Those voices from the past are probably in your head now and will affect how you view the world. As much as I thought that I escaped my father by not hearing his views about me, I can’t really get rid of it. It honestly still affects how I relate to people at some level. I can’t do it – but if you can, I would get other types of therapy to change how you think (I’ve read about cognitive behavioral therapy – it does not look at the past, but works on trying to change how you think and view things)
• (Even though I just said the above) If you can, try to take responsibility for your life now. Don’t live and relive the past over and over and over again, or blame people. My sister still lives in the same world that she did as a teenager or even younger person, and I believe that it is because she can’t let go. Do acknowledge that treating you in a certain way is not acceptable (and don’t let new friends or partners treat you that way…ever), but maybe remind yourself that your brother was a child, too, and is still learning. If you need to cut him off, do so, but don’t blame him and rethink everything over and over again for the rest of your life. I do believe some therapists love to do that – so just ask yourself the question as to whether it is healthy or not.

If you think memailing me will help you, feel free. If not, good luck OP. It takes a lot of guts to recognize your past, make changes that include cutting people off, and getting therapy.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 10:05 AM on February 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you need almost as much distance from your parents as you do from your brother. While your brother sounds like a really dreadful sibling even now, it was your parents' responsibility to respect your account of your brother's antagonism and address it fairly instead of ignoring it and/or punishing you both. Lots of kids are awful to their siblings, which is why parents need to step in and teach empathy and good behavior.

Right now, your entire family is dismissing your valid desire to distance yourself from your brother. Lots of parents feel resentment when an adult child calls them out on bad parenting, hence the "stop feeling sorry for yourself" line. Do you see how, once again, they're rolling their eyes when they should be listening and engaging you? It hurt you as a kid and now it's hurting you as an adult.

If I were you, I'd take a step back from both parents and your brother until they're willing to listen to you instead of waving away your point of view.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:10 AM on February 8, 2010 [17 favorites]

I am frankly considering severing ties with him completely, and making it known to my family that their inaction and insufficient response to the situation is threatening their relationship with me as well. It may be that I am in the thrall of new emotions uncovered by therapy, but I find myself reliving the trauma and accompanying urges to punish him myself on a daily basis in a way this is interfering with my occupational security.

In my experience, there are different levels of disengaging and it is helpful to think of a variety of options to use to ensure that you are protected from them.

But you must learn to acknowledge the real anger towards them. Many psychologists recommend writing a letter to the abuse and the enabler to put out in words exactly how you feel. You may or may not send the letter. But that is always better than just cutting them off for no reason.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:20 AM on February 8, 2010

I cut myself off from my family over a decade ago, and haven't regretted it for an instant.

Don't think of it as "cutting yourself off" - think of it as removing toxicity from your life. Your brother is a toxin, and you are just keeping your emotional atmosphere clean.

If you want someone to talk to feel free to PM me.
posted by Billegible at 10:33 AM on February 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, and n'thing that the problem is your whole family, who are behaving abominably towards you.

Make yourself a new family from your friends; people you have chosen to be with. Slavish devotion to "family" is nonsense; if your blood ties make you feel like a smear of excrement on the pavement, THEY DON'T DESERVE YOU. Feel free to move on without them.
posted by Billegible at 10:35 AM on February 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

I had to separate myself for a time from my family and what it turned out to be was something like a reset button for me. In the time that I wasn't having a constantly running faucet of bullshit, I was able to figure out what was and was not acceptable to me and then create some boundaries. I also realized that if they all went away, I wouldn't be devastated (by any stretch) and so if they wanted a relationship with me, they were going to have to respect the boundaries I had created.

For me, it worked like a charm. I'm not saying it's perfect. Once in a while I still have to step up and remind people that we use inside voices but after a time not dealing with such manipulative people, it helped me to see clearly what I didn't want in my life.

Good luck.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:45 AM on February 8, 2010

I think you might find this AskMeFi post helpful.

Since you requested anecdotes, I'll share that I cut off contact with one of my older brothers after years of physical and verbal abuse. I made this decision with the support of a therapist. The first step was to set up a filter in my email account so that all of his emails went to my trash folder. The second step was to pay for a service for my cell phone so that his text messages and phone calls were blocked. The third step was to ask my other family members to respect that I didn't want to be left alone with him. This last part was the hardest part because my mother either pretends that the abuse didn't happen or she promises me that "he is trying to be better." In order to maintain a relationship with my mother, I have to avoid talking about my brother with her or visiting her when my brother is around.

I also second what a previous commenter wrote about putting energy towards healthy friendships. Friends can really help you keep a good perspective about your brother's behavior.

Overall, it was a really positive decision for me. I feel so much happier and healthier without the abuse. Good luck.
posted by val5a at 11:25 AM on February 8, 2010

Anecdotal information to consider: someone I am close to stopped having contact with a sibling (this sibling lies habitually and is emotionally manipulative), framing it as "When you are willing to have an honest conversation about our relationship, and when you acknowledged the ways you have deeply hurt me, I will welcome contact with you; until then, I can't be around you." Overall, this has been immensely healthy choice and the person's life is better for it. However, this person's parents are so accustomed to making excuses for the lying, manipulative sibling that they can't understand why their other child has reduced contact with the sibling. This person has had to develop a firm, automatic response--along the lines of "[Sibling] has hurt me deeply, and until [Sibling] is willing to seriously and honestly discuss that behavior with me, I am not interested in casual contact; I will not pretend to have a healthy, loving relationship with [Sibling] just because you want me to"--to their parents' comments.

So, I don't say that to suggest you not create healthy distance between yourself and your brother. Indeed, it sounds like a good step--regardless of blood relationship, you don't need to keep putting yourself in an emotionally damaging situation. I just hope you'll keep in mind that you'll likely need to find a healthy, firm way to deflect your parents' response to that choice.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2010

...after several days of exposure to my brother I had reached my limit and refused to share a car ride back to the airport with him. I was then accused of "feeling sorry for myself", which is a constant refrain in my family. My parents express their disappointment with me for distancing myself from him on a regular basis.

My older sister never (to my knowledge) treated me the way your brother treats you, yet I react similarly to her no matter what she does; it's almost pathological. I won't go into detail here, but after decades of not expressing my feelings about her, to her and to my mother, my mother instantly responded as your parents do.

I don't have pat answers for you, but you and I are both adults and are entitled to share our lives with the people we want. That doesn't have to be your brother, and it doesn't have to be my sister; certainly my sister and I make small attempts to be congenial but won't make the mistake of sharing a car again, or discussing anything at all, really. The only thing that makes it hard is knowing my mother is disappointed by our lack of a relationship, but ultimately that's about her, not me. Similarly, your parents' disappointment is about them, not you.

I guess if I can say anything, it's this: you and I could both probably do a better job of forgiving people, but that doesn't change the fact that it's healthy to avoid the influences in our lives that are emotionally or otherwise destructive. Consider: if you were a recovering alcoholic and your brother was always trying to drag you to bars and offering you drinks, wouldn't it be okay to avoid him whenever possible? Your emotional well-being is more important than a third party (your parents) being disappointed in the lack of a close relationship between the two of you. Some distance between you will likely help you reach a place of forgiveness, and if not, at least you'll be happier for being away from him.
posted by davejay at 12:15 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing: both my mother and I have a relative (my father's sister) who we won't speak to, because of her emotionally abusive behavior. The only side-effect to removing her from our lives (a decision we each came to independently) has been that she tells people we're estranged for reasons that have nothing to do with her and make us seem unreasonable.

After years of distance, my mother finally allowed this relative back into her life after my father died; she felt it was time to forgive, and through time and distance perhaps this relative's behavior had changed. Instead, what happened was several months of the same old thing, followed by a comment so offensive and thoughtless that my mother cut her off again. My mother's only regret about cutting this relative out of her life is that she briefly allowed her back in.

So take that as a data point.
posted by davejay at 12:20 PM on February 8, 2010

Ack, that made no sense. I meant to say...

"I won't go into detail here, but after decades of not expressing my feelings about her, when I finally expressed them to her and to my mother, my mother instantly responded as your parents do."
posted by davejay at 12:22 PM on February 8, 2010

I've cut both my parents out of my life (main cause being my mother's actions and father's inactions). I hear from my sister that my mom is medicated now, and doing better. But after a decade of them out of my life, I don't feel anything missing, and I am not planning to attempt reconcilliation for fear of what happened to Davejay's mother. I see few potential positives (getting some will'ed money, or gifts for our kids, or even for my wife and I (note all are simply material)), and a large world of negatives.

The only real family contact I have as a result of my parental estrangement is with my only sibling. She'll occaisionally put in a request that I call mom and dad, but is willing to let it drop and doesn't push it very hard. While she definitely agrees there were some problems with how we were raised, she thinks I've gone overboard, but on that we're two different people. I don't request info on my parents from her, and don't try to turn her against them/reopen wounds. If/when she brings anything up about them, I'll let it drop, or redirect it.

Perhaps you might be able to cut off contact, and then renegotiate contact with them as you progress through your therapy. Perhaps you might plan for that, and end up in the same book as me and keep the new status quo.
posted by nobeagle at 12:51 PM on February 8, 2010

Please memail or email me about this.
posted by kathrineg at 1:33 PM on February 8, 2010

I would be told that I was an ungrateful and underserving child.

I don't want to make too much of it, but your typo jumped out at me.

making it known to my family that their inaction and insufficient response to the situation is threatening their relationship with me as well.

While this seems like the very least they could do, I wonder if they're capable of acknowledging the need to respond. Before doing this make sure you can handle a negative outcome.

When I would protest or defend myself, in their minds our squabbles had turned into a fight, and we would both be disciplined for the same offense.

Whenever I hear this line of 'it takes two for there to be a fight', I wonder if the speaker believes that 'it takes two for there to be a mugging, or a rape'. Equating involved with responsible is the easy way out.
posted by BigSky at 1:36 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

"I am frankly considering severing ties with him completely, and making it known to my family that their inaction and insufficient response to the situation is threatening their relationship with me as well."

(emphasis mine.)

GOOD. Good for you.

After cutting ties with my family, I finally achieved the awesome happy home and life I always wanted.

The years of "managing" or "humoring" certain individuals was really awful and DEFINITELY held me back in terms of healing, processing the past, and letting go.

I finally gave myself permission to do what I wanted. I just stopped taking calls or feeling guilty. I said it and wrote it and pleaded for years - if they couldn't meet me halfway the right way, then I was free to stop trying. Finally.

And you know what? It's heaven on this side of the equation! Other folks are happy over here, too. It's not taboo like you think! Instead, it's pleasant and practical to remove persistent sources of pain and anguish from your life.

Come join us!


FWIW - It's different for everyone, I'm sure. But I can't remember if I've ever seen on metafilter where another member moved on from their family and then regretted the decision. Anyone got any anecdata on that? Because I think when this question comes up, only folks that have been in similar shoes can say for certain whether cutting all ties is appropriate or not. I've done it. It works. For years I listened to society telling me how sad and unfortunate I would be if I cut all ties. When I listened to myself, my life finally improved and became sustainably stable.


So I ask you fellow mefites - do we know anyone who's made the total family break because they were abused, and then regretted it years later + reestablished contact + experienced improved relations with their abusers/family? Because I'd really like to know.

Thanks to everyone.

OP - Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 2:10 PM on February 8, 2010

I meant "were really awful" oops.
posted by jbenben at 2:21 PM on February 8, 2010

I haven't talked to my parents in 4 1/2 years. I don't regret it.

Think of your brother and your parents (they are guilty of as much as your brother is) as people accidentally connected to you through biology. You're a self-sufficient adult. You and they need not have anything to do with each other. Nothing at all.

On preview: totally agree with jbenben. Come join us!!
posted by halonine at 2:39 PM on February 8, 2010

No regrets here (after 12 years.)
posted by raisingsand at 4:21 PM on February 8, 2010

I definitely empathize with you on the abuse, and the denying or minimizing of your pain by parents. Both are unforgivable, in my opinion, especially the action of the parents. It is a sacred duty to protect your child.

My brother brutalized me for a very long time and undermined everything I said or did, for years and years. I hated myself for decades and thought I was a worthless person, because he taught me that. My mother did not protect me (my parents were divorced and my father lived a thousand miles away). Favorite things I heard included: "You just *like* to cry!" "Stop taking everything so *personally*" and "Just ignore him!". All of these things put the problem on *me*. Did they do stuff like that to you, too? It is pretty awful when a family picks on the weakest member pitilessly. A family is supposed to be where you are safe.

But somehow things got better. He was two years older than me, and when he started football in 9th grade, the physical side lessened and then disappeared, I guess because he had an outlet for his aggression (he was a lineman). He started treating me with more respect. When I went to the same college he did, he was helpful and looked out for me. He still made fun of me from time to time, but it didn't sting the same way as it did when I was seven.

This is going to sound really strange, but he seemed to grow out of treating me that way. I have no idea why. I had long since given up on making my case to my family (they would just deny that it was that bad, renewing my pain at their unhelpfulness when I was small and couldn't protect myself). As the years went on I realized that my mother was actually pretty fragile emotionally, and to make a big huge deal about it all over again would really hurt her too much, and I love her and have a really wonderful relationship with her now. I realize part of this was me just internalizing that my pain didn't matter enough somehow, but part of it was a bit of maturity and realizing that an acknowledgement and apology wouldn't really *gain* me anything. I still don't forgive what she did, but I understand a little more about how hard it was for her as a single mother of three, with a boyfriend who shot himself when I was five. And seriously? If I brought it up she'd never, ever believe me about how bad it was. They minimized my pain then, and with the fog of thirty years' distance it's going to seem even *more* minimal to them. "You just don't remember the way it really was!" "He was just having fun with you"... I can hear it now, what they would say, so I don't bring it up. It would just hurt *me* again. And they would never believe that they were a party to such torture.

It took decades to really feel like I sort of like myself, though. I am 37 now. At the base of it I think I still feel like I am a rotten person, but I have become inured to it in some ways, probably *mostly* thanks to the medication I am on (I am bipolar, and heavily medicated).

The strangest turn is the little two-person culture I have going with my current boyfriend. We tease each other all the time, good-naturedly. I can hardly believe it, but I can take the little swipes the way they are intended, as good fun with someone I am well-bonded to. And I give as good as I get. I realize this description may sound insane but it works for us, we have been together for three years, and it's great, we have a lot of fun. As much as we mutually tease, there is great respect and caring. Life can be kind of odd sometimes. But the reason why I even mention this is that it has in some ways been cathartic for me.

Once at a family trip during Thanksgiving 2005, I had a few moments to talk with my brother alone, and sort of in a low-key way indicate to him that yeah... it was hell growing up with the way he treated me. He got this serious look on his face and was like "really?". Then he said "if you really think that then I'm sorry", and he meant it. Of course it was still couched in terms that my experience was just what I thought, not necessarily how things actually were. But it was an apology, and that's all I'll ever get or want.

I hope that you are able eventually to get to a good place with your brother. Maybe not ever an apology, but at least maybe he'll grow up and stop being such a dick to you. One can hope.

I think in my case part of what enabled me to have better relations with all of my family was for me to fundamentally drop it. I used to rage, rage, rage inside about it, but that just ended up keeping it at the forefront of my mind and made me continue to feel really shitty about the whole situation, continuously, even though I wasn't around my brother anymore. I decided I liked the good parts of spending time with and talking with my family, and didn't want to give that up.

When people post askme threads about "How many children should I have?" or "Should I have another child?", I think it would do them well to read threads like this about how things can go wrong, and how absolutely VITAL it is for the parents to do whatever it takes to protect the children from each other. I don't think people usually give it much thought. There's normal sibling grousing and then there's... destroying a person over and over again, for years and years. Nobody deserves that.

Good luck. I don't know how old you are but I really hope the coming years are better for you.
posted by marble at 7:32 PM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with many replies here, that simply because they are your family, doesn't mean you OWE it to love them or even LIKE them. I haven't had to cut off entirely, but have happily lived a good handful of states away for 15 years. I would never encourage any of them to live anywhere near me. My family is your basic run-of-the-mill toxic, dysfunction, no boundaries, no respect, what-have-you. But I felt it was a duty of mine about a decade ago to try to CREATE the happy, loving, respectful relationships with family members that I had always wished for. They did not reciprocate, for whatever reasons, how of laziness or whatever. So, I jsut stopped, years ago. They are my relatives, I can appreciate them when I see them about one weekend every few years, but there is basically nothing there. So now, my "family" consists of some awesome, loving, and warm friends who have become the "sisters" and "brothers" that I had always dreamed of.
posted by foxhat10 at 12:07 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops, forgot to say, yes, I think you are defintely doing the right thing by getting away from these people. You have to look after yourself adn be around those who have your best interests in mind. They have done nothing to positively help you along, just constant berating. Get your counseling as much as you need to; and remember, this is YOUR life, so make it yours. Peace to you.
posted by foxhat10 at 12:14 PM on February 9, 2010

I'll add another tally to "No regrets for severing family ties."

I was a child sandwiched between two divorced parents who spent the better part of my adolescence fighting one another. They each tried to manipulate me into hating the other parent and would often air the offending parent's "dirty laundry" against my wishes.

Even in young adulthood my attempts to have a healthy relationship with my abusive parents typically backfired in my face, usually in the form of emotional manipulation and degradation.

The best decision I ever made was to ignore their calls, delete their emails, and visit them as little as humanly possible. (I only visit because of other family members who live with them.)

My parents spent the better part of my childhood neglecting my most basic of needs: food, clean clothes, school attendance, health care, etc. I spent a great deal of time being sick, wearing stained and tattered clothing, and being dangerously underweight. The only reason child protective services wasn't called is because I had an older sibling who looked after me sometimes.

Why should I do anything for the people who did nothing for me growing up?

I call it karma.
posted by BettyBurnheart at 9:44 PM on March 3, 2010

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